A young Unite member working in the sector outlines the challenges facing care workers.
Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, care workers provide for the personal needs of the most vulnerable people in our community. This is vital, socially necessary work; yet for the vast majority of care assistants a reasonable living wage remains a distant aspiration. Care provision continues to be a growing sector, and it is perhaps the only industry in this country available to ordinary workers in which the demand for jobs is out paced by supply. However, instead of this leading to a gradual increase in the standards of pay and conditions for care workers, there has been a continual decrease in the quality of contracts available to new entrants into the industry.
For instance, outside of Dublin minimum wage is becoming the norm for care staff instead of the exception. And in Dublin newly employed care assistants can consider themselves lucky to earn in and around the 10 euro an hour mark (even within the public sector). Anecdotally, horror stories exist of care assistants being paid minimum wage for twelve hour night shifts in nursing homes, receiving no uplift on this basic rate, and then being expected to go from a night round (performing intimate care tasks on elderly residents), straight into the nursing home kitchen to peel potatoes. Despite being a horror story these working conditions are definitely not unusual and are becoming increasingly common. So, what are the reasons that care work is so undervalued in our society, and how does it uniquely avoid being affected by the laws of supply and demand?
Agency workers have always been necessary to cover for unexpected sick leave, but they have now taken on a structurally essential role in the public sector, with most care services being unable to function without them. Agency workers do receive higher than average basic rates of pay; in order to compensate them for lack of holiday pay, sick pay and pensions (or any other form of workers’ rights). In effect, agency work represents the ultimate in zero hour contracts and insecurity. This lack of job security for agency workers has acted as a natural break on the demands of new entrants into normal full time positions within the care industry. Essentially any care assistant who wishes to have a secure roster, within a normal working environment, and be a part of a care team must accept poor rates of pay or else accept the insecurity of agency work1.
The private homecare companies are notorious among care staff due to their poor treatment of workers and laissez faire attitude to recruitment. For instance, failure to pay for hours worked (either through incompetence or design) seems to be standard operating procedure. Anyone whose family members are receiving private home care provision would be well advised to ensure that the carer providing the service has their legally required FETAC Level 5 in healthcare provision (all eight modules, not just the care of the elderly module). In general, homecare has become a minimum wage job with little to no travel allowance for time spent moving between service users’ homes. Obviously, this has an impact on the pay of all other care assistants within nursing homes and public sector hospitals.
Haddington Road Agreement
In order to reduce the need for agency workers the unions negotiated that a much needed 1000 positions for care staff be opened up in the public sector. However, these 1000 jobs would be recruited as internships, emulating the graduate nurse scheme. So these “interns” would be recruited on 85% of the lowest increment for care staff for the first year, then 90% in the second year. With the possibility, and only a possibility, of a permanent job in year three of employment. Similar to the JobBridge scheme, calling these positions “internships” and pretending that they involve any sort of meaningful training is blatantly ridiculous. The public sector hospitals are only using the internship positions to recruit experienced care staff (a minimum of one to two years’ experience has been part of the job advertisements), who already have the full FETAC level five.
The “internship” programme is just a reduced starting rate for care staff, equating to about €10.40 an hour basic in the first year. This poor rate of pay is combined with absolutely no guarantee of a full time position once the “internship” is over. Traditionally, the relatively decent rates of pay and working conditions for care workers in the public sector helped to protect the pay and conditions within private nursing homes. Now that public sector conditions have been undermined there is little barrier to turning care work into a minimum wage job across the board. The Haddington Road agreement as applied to care assistants highlights a consistent flaw within trade unionism, which could be fatal in the long run, and that is the willingness to protect their current members at the expense of new entrants, who in general tend to be much younger than the core union membership.
Gender discrimination and exploitation of immigrant labour
Undoubtedly the main reason that care assistants are so undervalued in their workplaces is that they are a predominantly female and immigrant workforce. Traditionally all caring roles have been undervalued in Capitalism, the treatment of child care workers is exactly the same, if not worse, than the treatment received by care assistants. The poor wages and working conditions felt by care workers is linked to the gender pay gap and the devaluing of women’s contribution to the workplace in general. This combined with a predominantly immigrant workforce, who unscrupulous managers find it easier to exploit, means that management techniques of bullying and harassment that seem anachronistic to many who are not familiar with the industry, are in fact common practice. Especially within, but not limited to, the private sector.
Emulate the nurses
Care assistants should learn from the public relations success of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO). This is probably one of the best professional trade unions in the country, who have strenuously and publicly defended the rights of their members; even the new entrants. The entire country believes, and rightly so, that nurses are essential workers that deserve to be respected and valued. A tactic of INMO representatives in the media is to detail the essential work that nurses do; the sort of intimate care work that the general public find it impossible to imagine being able to do themselves (such as toileting, washing, dressing, shaving, feeding, preparing of remains after death etc.). However, most of this work is now done by care assistants, under nursing supervision. But this message has completely failed to enter the public dialogue. Unlike nursing graduates, care assistants have no one to go to bat for them by publicly defending the dignity of their work, and consequently their pay and conditions. No qualified care assistant in this country should be caring for the sick and vulnerable for less than thirteen euro an hour, not only for their own standard of living but also to ensure the standard and quality of care for the people they care for.
Employers (both public and private) will argue that for carers to receive a fair wage it will have to come from the pockets of the citizens who receive their care, however, this is a false analogy. A reasonable wage for carers is relatively so minor an increase as to make hardly a dent in the accounts of public or private care facilities, but at the same time it would make a huge difference to the quality of life of care workers. Anyone who doubts this should download the accounts of their nearest private nursing home from the CRO website and see the sort of accumulated profits that they are posting. No doubt the people receiving the care would be glad to know that the people that spend the most time with them, often during extremely personal care tasks, are not receiving minimum wage for their socially necessary labour. So it is up to those carers in the unions to come together in order to fight for respect, to fight for the dignity of their work and to fight for a living wage.
1 The attitude of these agencies is illustrated by my own interview with a private care agency which consisted of the owner explaining to me, for fifteen minutes, the reasons why the country is in such a mess. Seemingly, it’s because public sector workers get five weeks holidays and a pension.
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